During the first week of February 1982, serious fighting broke out in Syria between residents of the north-central city of Hamah and the government’s armed forces. A Syrian army raid on a number of buildings that were suspected of being hideouts for local cells of the Muslim Brothers precipitated the fighting. Brother militants foiled this operation using modern small arms and grenade launchers. They then attacked a variety of government installations, including the Hama headquarters of the police and of the Baath party, and also the airfield on the edge of town. By the second day of the fighting, mosques in some sections of the city broadcast calls for a general uprising against the country’s rulers. In response, whole neighborhoods, particularly the quarter of Hadra in the center of town, joined the rebellion. [1]

By all accounts, this episode represented a severe challenge to the Syrian regime: It forced the government to pull troops away both from the Lebanon and from the restive area round Dar‘a, south of Damascus. [2] Explanations for this revolt have most frequently been formulated in terms of Syria’s ethnic divisions and the resurgence of Islamic sentiment among the country’s Sunni inhabitants. Such general and fashionable analyses do not explain why long-standing ethnic or sectarian differences produced an armed uprising on this scale at this particular time. Neither do they help us understand why these events occurred in Hama rather than one of several other “traditional, regional” cities in Syria. This account argues that the February revolt was primarily a reaction by small manufacturers and tradespeople in Hama to the regime’s program of large-scale industrial development. These efforts involved opening Syria’s domestic market to foreign investment and imported goods, and encouraging large- and middle-scale landholders in the countryside to expand cash crop production for overseas markets. These policies have led to a decline in the importance of small-scale cotton manufacturing within Syria’s economy. At the same time, they have given richer peasants in the north-central part of the country incentives to consolidate their holdings, enabling these farmers to threaten the social position of this region’s already disaffected artisans and traders.

In the winter of 1982, this threat took on larger dimensions. New government policies increased the financial support available to rich peasants producing crops for export. At the same time, the regime was expanding its industrialization program around Hama as a way of augmenting its own control over independent manufacturers in the city. Under these conditions, the army’s drive to break up local political cells in Hama and confiscate their weapons during the first week of February 1982 represented an effort by the regime to draw its opponents out into the open. The violent response was an attempt by the Brothers and their allies to seize a clear opportunity to assert their own influence in the province.

Hama’s Changing Economic Base

Hama has a long history as a center for both small-scale manufacturing and the processing of agricultural goods. Cotton ginning, cloth-weaving, leather working, tobacco processing and sugar refining are the major economic activities carried on within the city. Twenty percent of Syria’s cotton gins and butter factories are located in Hama province, as are ten of Syria’s 52 cheese factories. [3] These industrial concerns are relatively small compared with those in Damascus, Aleppo and Ladhiqiyya. In 1965, there were 4,603 unionized workers in Hama, divided among 22 separate trade unions. By contrast, Damascus had 23,827 workers among 30 trade unions and Aleppo, 23,899 workers among 28 unions. [4] The government unionized Syria’s workers during the mid-1960s, primarily at the expense of manufacturers in the larger cities. The persistence of small-scale units within the official trade union organizations of Hama at that time indicates the degree to which independent artisanal operations remain predominant in the city’s economy. As late as the 1970 census, 31.5 percent of this province’s urban workers were considered to be self-employed. This compares with 26.0 percent of the urban workers in Aleppo, 24.6 percent of those in Horns and 20.5 percent of those in Damascus. [5]

In the 1970s, however, the regime’s heavy industrialization policies fostered a number of capital-intensive, large-scale factories in and around Hama. These have significantly changed the character of manufacturing in the region. These factories include the state’s iron and steel works, a major cement factory opened at the end of 1976, and a modern tire factory. The main plant of the Arab Company for Ceramic Wall Tiles and Sanitary Wares opened its porcelain plant in August 1977, and began operating a pipe and bathroom fixture factory in December of that year. [6] In textiles, the state enlarged its cotton spinning factory at Hama in the spring of 1976, and modern textile mills were completed nearby at Idlib and Horns between 1977 and 1979. [7] There is also a large government shoe factory operating at Masyaf, outside the city of Hama itself. [8] In the adjacent province of Horns, the government has set up large-scale petroleum, ammonia, asphalt, fertilizer and phosphate operations. All of these were substantially expanded and modernized between mid-1979 and the end of 1981. [9] This industrial activity accompanied a marked increase in the importance of the construction sector in the region, as roads, railroads and utilities in north-central Syria were improved and extended.

This heavy industrialization program has hurt Hama’s small-scale manufacturers in several ways. By the end of the 1970s, artisans and shopkeepers in the city found themselves increasingly less well-off economically relative to the employees of the state’s factories. The government periodically raised salaries in state industries during these years in an attempt to offset inflation. These raises were not implemented outside the public sector, although the regime has made an effort to establish minimum wages in a wide range of industries in both the public and private sectors of the country’s economy. Paradoxically, these regulations have simply exacerbated the economic difficulties of the smaller manufacturers who must now pay their workers the mandated wage scale. As a result of these wage policies, the incomes of Syria’s artisans and traders, relative to those of public-sector employees engaged in similar activities, have deteriorated markedly in recent years. [10]

This differential has grown as inflation continued to push the cost of living within the country to higher and higher levels during the last few years. This trend has made it harder for Hama’s artisans to make a profit on their operations. The higher costs for their raw materials can only be passed on at the risk of encouraging consumers to buy cheaper factory-made articles instead. [11] The gradual opening of the Syrian market to imported manufactured goods, initiated by the regime in 1977, has brought local small manufacturers competition from foreign producers as well.

At the same time, underemployed rural workers in the province have increasingly found work in constructing and maintaining the new state-sponsored industrial and infrastructural projects around Hama. According to Syrian government reports, 48 percent of the country’s labor force was engaged in agriculture in 1970, with 12.2 percent in industry and 7.3 percent in construction. By 1979, these proportions were 31.8 percent, 17.1 percent and 13.7 percent, respectively. [12] Construction projects have provided these workers with a relatively steady income and relieved them of the seasonal unemployment that was an integral feature of agricultural labor in Syria’s central plains. Consequently, these laborers are no longer dependent upon the moneylending and advance purchases from which many of Hama’s traders and shopkeepers profited in earlier years. Instead, the growing ranks of construction workers around Hama have increased the level of demand for the relatively cheaper products of the province’s state-run factories and certain imported items. Thus, the expanding state-controlled construction sector of the province’s economy has seriously undercut one of the most significant ways in which Hama’s tradespeople maintained their economic predominance over the surrounding countryside.

After 1979, this program of large-scale industrialization within the province accelerated. It began to involve industries that traditionally constituted the basis of Hama’s economy. Chinese, British and Libyan capital was invested in several very large spinning and weaving mills in the north-central part of the country, while the French firm Sonice contracted to build a modern blanket factory in northern Syria. This was probably the new wool spinning and dyeing factory that opened at Hama in late 1981. Massive new industrial complexes are being constructed not only around Hama itself, but also at Idlib, Aleppo, Horns and Ladhiqiyya. [13] When these plants begin full operation, markets for the relatively more expensive items produced by Hama’s small manufacturers will become even more constricted.

Changes in Agricultural Production

This development threatens to remove entirely what political leverage these provincial tradespeople had been able to retain within Syrian society. Their position is further complicated by the dramatic way that the government’s industrialization program has affected agriculture around Hama.

The regime’s large-scale industrial projects have drawn growing numbers of farm laborers away from agricultural work in the countryside and into construction and other kinds of unskilled labor around the new factory sites. This has contributed to a substantial decline in cotton production throughout Syria. This decline has been particularly severe around Hama and Aleppo. Both the area of land devoted to cotton production in the country and the amount of cotton produced has fallen off consistently during the last half of the 1970s, relative to other kinds of crops. [14] As a result, less and less cotton is available at a reasonable price to the country’s small-scale manufacturers, and the production of cloth, yarn and cotton clothing in their establishments continues to decline. In Hama, the price of a kilogram of ginned cotton rose from 372 piasters in 1976 to 418 piasters the following year. [15] At the same time, sales of cloth and clothing by small manufacturers in the private sector declined sharply, although sales by the state-controlled General Organization for Textile Industries appear not to have suffered quite so badly. [16]

Lands in Hama province, which had been devoted to cotton and wheat production during the 1960s, have been turned to the cultivation of other sorts of cash crops as the supply of agricultural labor in the region continues to shrink. Between 1976 and 1977, the amount of watermelons, dry broad beans and lentils, sunflowers, sugar beets, green plums and pistachios grown in this region rose significantly; that of millet, eggplant and potatoes dropped. [17] The profitability of these newer crops, along with that of other export crops such as apples and peaches, has reinforced the trend away from the production of industrial crops around Hama and has increased the prices of those crops that continued to be grown for the city’s small manufacturers. This process is particularly detrimental to those tradespeople who had benefited from the 1975-1976 drops in the level of imported goods coming into Syrian markets, only to be confronted with dramatic jumps in the level of imports after 1977. [18]

These changes in Hama province’s agricultural production have political implications directly related to what has been called “the cleavage between the city and the village in Syria.” [19] Middle peasants in Hama, the primary beneficiaries of the government’s land reform programs, faced threats to their social position not only from the larger landholding families residing in the city, the losers from these programs, but also from the province’s remaining landless peasants who used to shift between seasonal agricultural labor and unskilled day work in the towns. The middle peasants have, in the past, had a considerable advantage as a result of their close ties to the regime. [20] But the landless rural laborers who have found steady employment in the construction sector are less dependent for their livelihoods upon continued access to seasonal agricultural work. This has had important consequences. First, the price of day labor for the middle landholders has correspondingly risen, weakening their economic position in the countryside. Second, the former landless peasants-become-laborers — whose numbers are greater in this province than they are in any other part of the country [21] — now constitute a reservoir of potential opposition freed from their dependence on the regime’s local social base. Hama province has a history of peasant radicalism and revolt. [22] Finally, those richer peasants who were producing cotton, sugar beets and livestock around Hama found themselves in constant conflict concerning prices and distribution with the city artisans who use these items in their workshops. During times when the output of industrial crops is low, or when the state’s distribution system is inadequate or faulty, Hama province’s middle landholders become both objects of hostility from urban craftspeople and victims of the government’s system of price controls which prevents them from benefiting proportionately when their produce is in short supply.

Syria’s leaders took steps to defuse the insurrectionary situation in the country’s north-central cities beginning in the summer of 1981. The government decreed a ban on the importation of women’s clothing, cigarettes, air conditioners and perfume. It also restricted imports of cheese, cigarette lighters, fish and clocks to authorized state trading companies. [23] These moves were preceded by a series of dismissals of supervisors in state factories in north-central urban areas for alleged corrupt practices. [24] But these responses were insufficient to achieve their political purpose. State officials, and the Damascus merchants and industrialists who supported them, could only have pacified this region successfully by taking measures to reverse these larger trends.

This the regime could not do. The richer peasants, who had benefited the most from land reform and were turning the lands they had received to cash-crop production for export constituted the regime’s strongest political allies in the region. They were the main barrier to Hama’s older, large estate-owning families who were trying to reassert their own control over agricultural affairs in the province at this time.

Large Landholders

Land reform activities around Hama came to an end in the 1970s. These measures had been considerably more successful in other parts of the country. It is true that by 1972 the average size of agricultural landholdings in Hama province was no longer one of the highest in the country, as it had been through the 1960s. [25] But this change was not institutionalized here through the creation of agricultural cooperatives. In 1976, only 269,000 out of 895,000 hectares of cultivable land in Hama province was being worked by state-sponsored cooperatives. This proportion is marginally lower than that of the neighboring regions around Horns and Idlib, and is substantially lower than that of the areas around Damascus and Tartous, both of which are closely associated with the regime. [26] In this situation, poorer peasants found it more difficult to resist efforts by rich proprietors to regain control over agricultural production in the province. [27] Consequently, there was a gradual reconcentration of landholdings around Hama after the early 1970s.

Measures originally intended to help those who had benefited from land reform, notably those that encouraged farmers to grow cash crops for export, facilitated this development. Smaller farmers around Hama are gradually being pushed off the best agricultural lands in the area. Speculation is driving up the value of even the most marginal lands. This can be inferred from the regime’s attempts to bring range and forage lands in the province into continuous production using the most modern Western techniques. [28]

By the early 1980s, a variety of larger landholders began to reappear in the area between Horns and Aleppo. Some of these are rich peasants who have begun to hire laborers to help them work their lands and whose ability to provide capital and credit in the countryside puts them in competition with urban forces in the city of Hama. Others are connected to the region’s older landowning families, whose holdings had been the objects of the land reform measures of the 1960s. These larger agriculturalists, whose fortunes were for the most part made before the days of land reform, play a vital if inconspicuous role in political struggles within Hama province.

On one hand, they have supplied dissident urban forces with funds and weapons. [29] On a more basic level, they have also indirectly supported Hama’s artisans and shopkeepers by challenging the social position of the regime’s political allies in the countryside. Rich provincial landholders not only provide a substantial part of the market for local manufactured goods, but also serve as a source of loans and capital for those who produce these items. Middle landholders outside the city have no such source of readily available financial support. State cooperatives exist on an inadequate scale to support those who need short-term credit or help in marketing their produce. [30] Government agricultural credits for medium-scale agriculture have dried up during recent years, as state planners focused their attention on large-scale, capital-intensive projects in order to increase agricultural output as quickly as possible. [31] As a result, these middle peasants who need financial help are forced to turn to monied elements in the city. This puts them at a severe disadvantage relative to the reemergent large landholders who have an interest in extending their own control over the countryside. The result is a tacit alliance of the large landholders with Hama’s artisans and tradespeople in their own conflicts with the regime and its local allies.

Urban Revolt

In this setting, certain decisions by the regime in late 1981 and early 1982 probably contributed to the large-scale urban revolt that erupted in February. The Supreme Agricultural Board began paying substantially higher prices for cotton produced during the 1981-1982 crop year. This raise was largely an attempt to compensate for declining petroleum prices on world markets. It was also designed to increase the amount of cotton available for use in the state’s newly constructed processing and weaving mills, whose capacity had largely out-stripped domestic production by 1981. [32] This pulled an even higher proportion of Syria’s cotton crop away from local industries, toward the large state factories and export markets.

These subsidies indicated a significant change in the government’s agricultural development policies, evident in late 1981. Prior to that, the regime had placed primary emphasis on capital-intensive, large-scale projects, such as the land reclamation schemes in Dayr al-Zawr. [33] The new prime minister, ‘Abd al-Ra’uf al-Qasm, began implementing a series of agricultural policies designed specifically to benefit middle and smaller farmers. [34] By the first months of 1982, it remained unclear precisely what kinds of local-level programs these policies would entail. It was apparent, though, which groups were expected to pay for these new programs.

In the face of decreasing oil revenues from outside consumers, and declining levels of foreign aid monies from other Arab countries, Syria’s leaders changed the country’s tax system in late 1981 to include a gradual but substantial increase in the rate at which taxes were assessed (from 10 percent of gross domestic product in 1980 to 15 percent by 1985). At the same time, there was a crackdown on both tax evasion and the importation of unlicensed goods and materials. [35] The government also severely reduced subsidies on fuel prices and established a committee within the Ministry of Agriculture to consider whether or not food subsidies should also be curtailed or suspended. [36] These measures were accompanied by restrictions on foreign trade, designed to improve the profitability of the state’s large-scale factory operations. [37] All of these decisions could be expected to hurt local artisans and shopkeepers in particular.

Islam and Rebellion in Hama

Islamic characteristics of the February 1982 revolt can be related to the social bases for the rebellion. Hanna Batatu has suggested that the relative absence of significant numbers of migrants coming into Hama from the surrounding rural areas has allowed this city to retain a measure of cohesion in the face of external threats that may have facilitated the eruption of a widespread political movement within its boundaries. Artisans and shopkeepers have an interest in maintaining their autonomy from financiers and state administrators, who would try to subordinate their activities to the dictates of greater efficiency or a more coherent administration. They also have a clear interest in working collectively to defend certain aspects of private property, especially those which legitimate individual effort and individual rewards. On another hand, they have an interest in limiting those operations of the market which give economic advantages to those having great stores of capital or access to large quantities of goods. This leads smaller tradespeople to look to the state to regulate the market when economic inequalities interfere with their making reasonable profits on their manufactures. Finally, these forces also have an interest in exchanging the goods they produce or sell for those items that their fellows produce or sell.

How to juggle these essentially conflicting political interests constitutes a perennial problem for artisans as a class. A notion of fairness appears to be a common feature of artisan life in a wide variety of contexts. [38] Islamic ideas about “just rule” and “moderate wealth” are on the whole congruent with tradespeople’s concern for fairness. [39] Particular social forces adopt those components of “Islamic thought” that can reinforce their specific position in a particular context. In present-day Syria, the most compelling elements of “Islamic thinking” are anti-statist. They are not very tolerant of heterodoxy. As in Algeria, they help to set small-scale manufacturers “both against rustic ignoramuses” and “against those who aspire to or possess privileges by virtue of” their ties to the West. [40] Hama’s artisans and shopkeepers, urban-based large landholders and more or less peripheral cotton and textile merchants can best use these aspects of Islam in their struggles against the coalition of state officials, industrial managers and rich Damascus import-export merchants who buttress and benefit from the present regime.

Although Islamic ideas played a role in the Hama revolt of February 1982, these ideas by themselves do not provide the best explanation for this political rebellion. The origins of this violent outburst lie instead in the changes that the regime’s programs of heavy industrialization and open trading and investment have effected on economic relationships in and around this city in recent years. These changes have been detrimental to artisans and tradespeople in the area in a number of ways: They have reduced their standard of living relative to workers in larger industrial plants in and around the province; they have enhanced the political position of rich and middle peasants at the expense of most urban dwellers; and they have increased the cost of (and created shortages in) the industrial crops that these small manufacturers need for their livelihoods. Government policies adopted in late 1981 reinforced these trends in Hama’s local economy, and also threatened the city’s artisans and shopkeepers with permanent subordination to regional forces allied with the regime. The February revolt represented a desperate effort by these small-scale manufacturers and traders to preserve some measure of control over local economic and political affairs.

Author’s Note: Hanna Batatu, Yahya Sadowski and Joe Stork made constructive comments on a preliminary draft of this article.


[1] Whether or not Syrian army units defected to the rebels’ side remains an open — and politically very sensitive — question. Later accounts suggested that rebels had dressed in regular army uniforms and this constituted the basis for reports of defections. See, for example, Le Monde, February 12, 1982, and Wall Street Journal, May 6, 1982.
[2] This history of the February rebellion is based on a variety of newspaper accounts contained in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Le Monde and the Los Angeles Times. By far the best initial report on this revolt is Joe Stork, “Syrians Crush Hama Rebellion,” Guardian (New York), March 3, 1982.
[3] Syrian Arab Republic, Statistical Abstract 1965 (Damascus, 1966), p. 240; US Department of Agriculture, Cotton in Syria, FAS-M-280 (Washington, DC, 1978), p. 22.
[4] Syrian Arab Republic, Statistical Abstract 1965, p. 114.
[5] Syrian Arab Republic, Population Census 1970 (Damascus, n.d.), pp. 36-37.
[6] Tabitha Petran, Syria (New York: Praeger, 1972), p. 211; Rapport 1977-1978 sur l’Economie Syrienne (Damascus: Office Arabe de Presse et de Documentation, n.d.), B-63; Economist Intelligence Unit, Quarterly Economic Review of Syria and Jordan, third quarter 1981, p. 9; idem., second quarter 1981, p. 8.
[7] Rapport 1977-1978, B-63; US Department of Agriculture, Cotton in Syria, p. 27; Quarterly Economic Review of Syria, second quarter 1981, p. 8; idem., third quarter 1981, p. 9.
[8] Quarterly Economic Review of Syria, third quarter 1980, p. 6.
[9] Ibid., first quarter 1980, p. 12; idem., 2nd quarter 1981, p. 9; idem., fourth quarter 1981, p. 10; idem., annual Supplement 1981, p. 9.
[10] See Bureau International du Travail, Rapport au Gouvernement de la Republique Arabe Syrienne sur la Reglement des Salaires dans l’Industrie (Geneva, 1971); Quarterly Economic Review of Syria, second quarter 1980, p. 5; Salim Nasr, “Les travailleurs de l’industrie manufacturiere au Machrek,” Maghreb/Machrek 92 (April-May 1981), pp. 18-20.
[11] For some representative prices on industrial raw materials and finished goods in Syria’s provinces, see Rapport 1977-1978, especially the section of tables entitled “Annual Average of Wholesale Prices in Centers of Muhafazat 1963, 1970-1977.”
[12] “Les Caracteristiques Generales de la Force Ouvriere en Syrie,” Syrie et monde arabe (February 25, 1981).
[13] In addition to the references cited in note 9 above, see Middle East Economic Digest, April 30, 1976 and March 19, 1976; Quarterly Economic Review of Syria, second quarter 1981, p. 8; idem., third quarter 1981, p. 9.
[14] Middle East Economic Digest, May 7, 1976.
[15] Rapport 1977-1978, “Annual Average of Wholesale Prices.” One hundred piasters comprise one Syrian pound; 3.9 pounds (or 390 piasters) = $1 at this time. On recent changes in Syria’s exchange rate, see Quarterly Economic Review of Syria, 3rd quarter 1981, p. 12.
[16] Rapport 1977-1978, B-118 and B-117; Quarterly Economic Review of Syria, fourth quarter 1981, p. 13.
[17] Rapport 1977-1978, B-21 through B-48.
[18] Ibid., B-71 through B-73.
[19] Raymond Hinnebusch, “The Islamic Movement in Syria: Sectarian Conflict and Urban Rebellion in an Authoritarian-Populist Regime,” in Ali E. Hillal Dessouki, ed., Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World (Praeger: New York, 1982).
[20] Raymond Hinnebusch, “Rural Politics in Baathist Syria: A Case Study in the Role of the Countryside in the Political Development of Arab Societies,” Review of Politics 44 (January 1982), pp. 118-120; Hanna Batatu, “Some Observations on the Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling Military Group and the Causes for Its Dominance,” Middle East Journal 35 (Summer 1982), p. 338.
[21] Ziad Keilany, “Land Reform in Syria,” Middle Eastern Studies 16 (October 1980), p. 212; International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, The Economic Development of Syria (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955), pp. 36-37.
[22] Petran, pp. 87-89, 175-176 and 229.
[23] Quarterly Economic Review of Syria, fourth quarter 1981, p. 14.
[24] Ibid., second quarter 1980, p. 5; idem., third quarter 1980, p. 6.
[25] Keilany, “Land Reform in Syria,” p. 216; International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Economic Development of Syria, pp. 36-37.
[26] Rapport 1976-1977, B-52.
[27] Petran, p. 207.
[28] Robert Springborg, “Baathism in Practice: Agriculture, Politics and Political Culture in Syria and Iraq,” Middle Eastern Studies 17 (April 1981), p. 193.
[29] Petran, pp. 175-176.
[30] Raymond Hinnebusch, “Local Politics in Syria: Organization and Mobilization in Four Village Cases,” Middle East Journal 30 (Winter 1976), pp. 11-19.
[31] Springborg, “Baathism in Practice,” passim; Keilany, “Land Reform in Syria,” p. 220.
[32] Quarterly Economic Review of Syria, second quarter 1981, p. 10; idem., third quarter 1981, p. 10.
[33] Springborg, “Baathism in Practice.”
[34] Quarterly Economic Review of Syria, fourth quarter 1981, pp. 8 and 11.
[35] Ibid., second quarter 1981, p. 8; idem., fourth quarter 1981, p. 8.
[36] Ibid., fourth quarter 1981, p. 11.
[37] Ibid., third quarter 1981, p. 12.
[38] Eric Hobsbawm, Laboring Men (Garden City, NJ: Anchor Books, 1964); C. H. Johnson, “Communism and the Working Class Before Marx: The Icarian Experience,” American Historical Review 76 (June 1971); B. Moss, “Producers’ Associations and the Origins of French Socialism: Ideology from Below,” Journal of Modern History 48 (March 1976); W. H. Sewell, “Corporations Republicaines: The Revolutionary Idiom of Parisian Workers in 1848,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 21 (April 1979).
[39] See M. Ali Ferkat, “Stress in the Islamic World,” Journal of South Asian and Middle East Studies 4 (Spring 1981).
[40] Ernest Gellner, “The Unknown Apollo of Biskra: The Social Base of Algerian Puritanism,” Government and Opposition 9 (Summer 1974), pp. 294, 384.

How to cite this article:

Fred H. Lawson "Social Bases for the Hama Revolt," Middle East Report 110 ( ).

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